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This article is part of a series on exploring the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
In this series on “Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” I’ve been exploring ways that the Lord communicates the doctrines and principles of the Word of Wisdom. The Lord often uses poetic words with layered meanings to teach us, and I believe this is true of the words He uses in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom. Last week in “Section 89 as Parable,” I suggested that it is useful to think of the Word of Wisdom as a parable in the sense that it does not convey just one surface truth that every reader is likely to agree on. I find it useful to think of Section 89 as a parable in that it leaves breathing room for various interpretations, so that we can get out of it what we need and what we are prepared to receive.
Have you ever wondered why the Lord doesn’t make His meaning more clear? Why are so many scriptures at least somewhat obscure? We all want to follow the Lord, so why doesn’t He just make them plain to our understanding? These are questions I explore in today’s article.
The Lord Sees No Reason to Over-Explain Himself
Anyone who reads the scriptures hoping to find obvious and unambiguous answers, along with detailed, easily understood explanations, is likely to be disappointed. As much as the Lord desires that we follow His will exactly, it appears He simply does not bend over backwards to explain Himself. Why? I believe He knows He doesn’t need to. In fact, He knows it would not be better for us. He knows there is more than enough power in the few words He speaks to touch our hearts with the truths we are ready and willing to receive. For all of us, more detailed explanations than we are ready to embrace would not help us. In fact, they might condemn us. On the other hand, we are never limited by the few words the Lord speaks, no matter how obscure they may initially appear, because of the principle of continuing revelation. If we receive whatever light we comprehend, additional light and knowledge will be given us. Here is how Nephi explained this principle:
I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:30)
One example of this is found when the Lord told the Jews, “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold” (John 10:16). This certainly is a cryptic remark. Perhaps the Jews wondered what that parable meant and could not decipher it, but the Lord did not expound on it. Interestingly, when He later appeared to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon, He told them why He did not explain more of this saying to their brethren at Jerusalem:
And now, because of stiffneckedness and unbelief they understood not my word; therefore I was commanded to say no more of the Father concerning this thing unto them. (3 Nephi 15:18)
Is it possible that our understanding of the gospel is sometimes stifled more by “stiffneckedness and unbelief” than by lack of explanation?
I must confess that for most of my life my understanding of the counsel in Section 89 was very much stifled by my stiffneckedness and unbelief. The fact was this: I didn’t want to change most of my unhealthy diet habits. I liked the foods I ate and did not sincerely welcome the additional light the Lord may have tried to give me. I shielded myself from that light by demanding that the Lord explain Himself more clearly to me. I told myself that if He would only tell me plainly (preferably through His prophet) what I should and should not eat, that I would certainly follow His counsel. But until He bent to my wishes, I felt I was justified in not making any major changes. My demand for clarity and unambiguity now seems to me a manifestation of my stiffneckedness and unbelief. Like Laman and Lemuel, I insisted that the Lord made “no such thing known” to me, when (like them) I had never truly “inquired of the Lord” (1 Nephi 15:8–9). Perhaps I was one of those who, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it, preferred ambiguity to accountability.
The Lord does not bend over backwards to make us understand Him. He knows we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. He respects our agency to decide how much we are willing to receive at each step in our journey, and He is gentle with us. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught:
Each pronouncement in the holy scriptures . . . is so written as to reveal little or much, depending on the spiritual capacity of the student.
If God over-explained His doctrine, we may be held responsible for things we are not ready to receive. There is no reason to over-explain because we will always be able to hear what we need to hear and what we are willing to hear. I appreciate that the Lord respects our agency to progress as slow as we need to, even if we sometimes cling to favored interpretations as a way of excusing ourselves. In fact, I believe even our excuses can be part of our journey back to Him. All of this can give us experience and be for our learning and growth.
Continuing Revelation as a Key
The principle of continuing revelation helps us understand why the Lord does not need to explain the principles in the scriptures in greater detail. In a powerful explanation of the relationship between scripture reading and revelation, Elder Dallin H. Oaks explains that “the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge” for Latter-days Saints. Rather, the “ultimate knowledge comes by revelation.” Elder Oaks goes on to explain:
Because of our belief in continuing revelation, we Latter-day Saints maintain that the canon (the authoritative body) of scriptures is open.
By “open,” Elder Oaks is pointing to the truth that the text we find in our scriptures is not the beginning nor the end of God’s counsel to us. It is revelation, and not scripture, that is primary for Latter-day Saints.
Not only does God continue to reveal His work to us through living prophets, He continues to reveal to us new layers of meaning even in the same scripture texts we already have. This is why the 1833 revelation in Section 89 does not need to be updated for the 21st century. As Elder Oaks explains:
We believe that God will give new revelations on the meaning of scriptures previously canonized, meanings that were not evident in earlier times.
Because it is revelation and not the actual text that is primary, we can go back to Section 89 time and time again and find new layers of meaning as we “prayerfully seek personal revelation to know their meaning.” Elder Oaks further expounds:
A scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today. Even more, scripture reading may also lead to current revelation on whatever else the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time.
What an expansive view of scripture this is! But Elder Oaks also cautions:
If we harden our hearts, reject continuing revelation, and limit our learning to what we can obtain by study and reason on the precise language of the present canon of scriptures, our understanding will be limited to what Alma called “the lesser portion of the word” (Alma 12:11). If we seek and accept revelation and inspiration to enlarge our understanding of the scriptures, we will realize a fulfillment of Nephi’s inspired promise that those who diligently seek will have “the mysteries of God … unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (1 Ne. 10:19).
I love this promise that as we “diligently seek” to understand the Lord’s word, “the mysteries of God” will be revealed to us. Because revelation is primary and the heavens are open, there is literally no end to the light and knowledge we can receive as we diligently seek Him.
God is a Gracious Host
Not only does the Lord patiently teach us line upon line, He cheers us on when we make any type of progress, no matter how small. He is gentle with us when we stumble or fall short. He tends to not only our needs, but also our desires, sometimes even when our desires do not completely align with His. He seems anxious to collaborate with us on the curriculum of our life’s journey as we make our way back to Him.
Certainly the principles of continuing revelation and respect for our agency apply to how we grow in our understanding of the Word of Wisdom. The following comment is insightful in this regard. Here Jan Penny is sharing her thoughts about how the Lord teaches us the Word of Wisdom:
The principle we may be missing here is that God is a gracious host. He gives people not only according to their needs, but according to their wants also. He said, “Or what man is there of you, who, if his son ask bread, will give him a stone?” (3 Nephi 14:9). He gave the Israelites meat when they complained about manna. Clearly He would have rather they stuck with manna, but he gave them what they wanted, and it made them sick. God didn’t want the people to have a king, but gave in to their desires. He rewards us according to the desires of our hearts so we can learn for ourselves. You can see that there are many instances in the scriptures like this. He doesn’t force us. He tries to lead us and encourage us. The Word of Wisdom is a growing principle. You can obey it at many different levels.
I appreciate the way the Lord manifests His great respect for our agency. It makes me want to treat others in a like manner. I believe God is genuinely patient with the nature and speed of our progress and that He delights in giving us what we desire when He knows it can help us grow. No experience goes to waste. All experience is for our benefit, learning, and growth.
Although we have all read and believe in the Word of Wisdom, we read the scriptures with the lens of our prejudices, which are formed, usually without our knowing it, from the compelling messages of the world around us. This has always been the case for the Word of Wisdom. We Mormons have always interpreted it through the lens of current dietary fads and/or preliminary scientific conclusions that later turn out to be incomplete or even inaccurate. We see through a glass darkly. All this is part of the mortal journey! I am confident the Lord appreciates the challenge we face as we seek to understand His words. He is ever gentle and patient with us, and as we diligently seek Him, all that is needed will be revealed to us.
Since God is patient with us, I hope we can likewise be as patient with ourselves. Just as God does not over-explain Himself, we don’t need to over-understand Him; that is, we don’t have to expect ourselves to understand everything He says at first, second or even the hundredth reading. Because of the principle of continuing revelation, all will be revealed to us in due time. Because the Lord is a gracious host, we need have no fear that He will manipulate us or forsake us before we reach the end of our journey. We are ever safe with God as our guide.
One healthy way of eating that sheds useful light on the principles in the Word of Wisdom is a whole food, plant-based diet. For more information, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. Jane can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.
 Neal A. Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth: The Journey of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book), 142.
 Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p. 71.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign (January 1995).
 Jan Penny, Facebook posting (2016). Used with permission.